Lingering lead water lines are a nationwide problem

Just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it won’t hurt us.

It seems we find ourselves relearning that lesson collectively time and again these days as the inventions we relied upon to accelerate into modern life now have come back to haunt us.

Think about what we’re now learning about PFAS chemicals that now lace our groundwater in many places and cause a bevy of health problems when we drink them in contaminated tap water. Those chemicals were integral in waterproofing processes, nonstick cookware and foam that effectively extinguishes chemical fires.

Similarly, albeit several decades ago, our nation had a reckoning with its past use and dependence upon lead in a massive number of products, including gasoline, paint and drinking water pipes. The former were taken off the market by the late part of the last century, although lead paint lingers in many homes in the U.S. — it’s presence must be disclosed to renters or buyers.

The latter, on the other hand, were banned in 1986 yet water continues to flow through millions of them nationwide, generating a persistent risk of lead exposure to tens of millions of Americans. Those lead hookup pipes were allowed to remain connecting homes to water mains despite the known risk of damage, especially to children, caused by drinking lead-laced water.

Worse, even in the most proactive states like Michigan, nobody has an accurate count of lead water pipes still in use.

That lurking public health menace erupted into the national spotlight in 2014 when officials in Flint changed their water supply, failed to compensate for a change in water pH levels, and sent a gush of lead through taps citywide. That catastrophe and the continuing fallout drew important attention to lead pipes buried, forgotten and still flowing water into homes in our country.

At that moment — 38 years after they were banned — lead service lines landed in the policymaking spotlight. Lawmakers and experts pushed important new requirements for community water systems and set deadlines for lead pipes to be removed and replaced.

Seven years later, the issue erupted once again as we learned residents in Benton Harbor have been drinking lead-laced water unabated for years.

Yet we knew little about the dozens of other community and municipal water systems dotting our region. Sure, we knew where they are located because system managers every two years report results of lead and copper tests to the state. But operators aren’t required to provide the state an official count of lead lines in the ground until 2025.

Some contend — probably accurately — that a well managed water system, even with lead lines present, won’t contaminate drinking water in our homes. They also accurately point out that the costs to swiftly excise the old lead lines is insurmountable in most places.

Some are proactively seeking grants to help fund replacement. Others are taking their time and replacing those aging lines at a rate of 5 percent each year, according to a relatively recent regulatory change. At that rate, many households in our region still will be drinking water through lead lines until 2040 or later.

In the meantime, requirements that water system operators test for lead and copper in a small number of homes only once each two years seems inadequate. It’s almost inconceivable that water conditioning doesn’t fluctuate with demand, elevating risk that lead will erode into homes.

That’s why we all should take steps to protect ourselves and our families. If possible, have our own water tested. Ask water system officials if our hookup is lead. And use home filters for any water for drinking or cooking.

It took decades to create this catastrophe, and it will take decades more to solve it. In the meantime, knowing the risks we face is imperative.

Because what we don’t know can and will hurt us.


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